A terrific new biography does the country legend right. It’s a great excuse to dust off his old albums or to start stacking up on his catalog.
BY JASON GROSS
When most people think of ‘country music,’ they center on the huge pop crossover successes of the last few decades from the likes of Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Shania Twain and Miranda Lambert. But even before that, a handful of stars also made the leap into pop cultural consciousness- Willie, Dolly, Mr. Cash. And then there’s the artists who are legends in the field of country itself but not household names otherwise, such as Hank, Merle (RIP), Lefty and the man that Frank Sinatra called the 2nd greatest American singer (after himself of course) – a Texas boy whose legacy includes a decades-long trail of broken marriages, drug use, rehab visits, business flops, violent incidents, police incidents, vehicular mishaps, abandoned concerts and label leaping. Still, anyone who knows more about country than what you can read in the tabloids can tell you that at his best, George Jones, a/k/a Possum, epitomized the best things that style of music has ever had to offer.
With a career that spanned about 60 years (roughly the mid-50’s up until his death in 2013) and a lifestyle that would make most rock stars blush, author Rich Kienzle (editor at Country Music Magazine) had his work cut out for him. Surprisingly, for a legendary figure like Jones, his life has only been covered thoroughly in an 1996 autobiography (I Lived To Tell It All), Bob Allen’s clinical, somewhat moist 1994 bio George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend and 2014’s useful The Legend of George Jones, written by a pair of old friends. Because of his rough and tumble life, any Jones bio could easily become a sex & drugs & country tome. Because of his massive discography (dozens of albums, over 100 singles), being comprehensive about his music would take a door-stopper book worthy of Roberto Belano or David Foster Wallace. But with The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones (Dey Street Books), and in a mere 262 pages, Kienzle wrangles the seemingly impossible- he defies Jones in places but doesn’t hide his disgust of his crappy recordings or crappy behavior and takes in some granular detail of his most famous songs.
Starting with Possum’s early years with a drunken abusive dad and a supportive religious mom and a military stint, Kienzle details how Jones pays his dues in small honky-tonk joints, side man gigs and local radio shows before hooking up with producer/label-man Pappy Daily to start recording in 1954 (the same year Elvis started). Originally a Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell discipline, Jones soon developed his own full throated style, starting with rambunctious hits like “The Race Is On” and “White Lightnin'” and soon moving to tear-in-your-beer ballads like “She Thinks I Still Care” and “Walk Through This World With Me.” Jones also evolved from being an impressive singer-songwriter to becoming an even more impressive interpreter, again like that Elvis character, with songs coming from some of Nashville’s finest songwriters (i.e. Dallas Frazier, Harlan Howard). Because Daily saw Jones more as a manufacturing line than an artist, the producer had him crank out several albums a year (sometimes recorded within a single day) and led Jones through a series of novelties, ill-advised rock moves and syrupy ballads, which means that his catalog is kind of spotty and best heard through compilations – Fantastic Voyage’s 3-CD set Ragged But Right, Bear Family’s Heartbreak Hotel and Rhino Record’s The Best of George Jones are great places to start.
Though Kienzle’s narrative barely touches on the social and musical upheavals of the 50’s and 60’s (except for one funny run-in with the Rolling Stones), he does draw a good, detailed portrait of the sessions and label maneuvers that Daily did during that time, all the while as Jones’ self-destructive behavior would sometimes get the best of him, but not derail his career as it would later. By the late 60’s, a new direction made itself felt as country itself was going through changes, with smoothed down ‘countrypolitan’ sound coming into its own. Jones left Daily (and a few wives by then) to hook up with producer Billy Sherrill, who led him through a more managed and seemingly mannered background for his music. But one where he could let his voice sail too. Sherrill would help to guide him to new artistic highs, which unfortunately were accompanied by managers and ‘friends’ who got him to other kind of highs, with a coke habit.
On the plus side, the early 70’s also meant that Jones’ next marriage partner would throw him into high profile. Tammy Wynette was already a country star by the time she hooked up with Jones in ’69 and their union did produce a string of impressive hits (especially 1973’s “We’re Gonna Hold On”) and tours together. But Possum’s old destructive habits plus Wynette’s own pill addiction meant that the long term prospects for the couple weren’t a given, leading to a D-I-V-O-R-C-E, as Tammy once sang about, in ’75. This part of Jones’ life might be the only part of Kienzle’s book that leans a little too much towards tabloid sensationalism, though in fairness, the couple did give celeb watchers plenty of fodder back then.
For the rest of 70’s and through a good part of the ’80’s, Jones fell into a downward spiral of drink n’ drugs but to his credit, Kienzle doesn’t indulge as much in Jones’ indulgences here, maybe because by then, Possum’s seppuku-like behavior was more private. Luckily, Sherrill hadn’t given up on him, assembling an all-star duets album in ’79 (My Very Special Guest) with Tammy, Willie, Waylon, plus Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and the Staple Singers- but even then, Jones’ voice/body/spirit were barely there, requiring two years of work to finish the album. Even his best-known song, 1980’s gorgeous, heart-breaking “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” took another two years to complete, not only because Jones thought it was too dreary but also because he was in no shape to sing it most of the time. After a disastrous Country Music Association Awards appearance in ’81 (detailed at the start of the book), Jones stumbled into his salvation with his fourth (!) wife Nancy Sepulvado, whose saint-like patience helped to get him finally on the wagon with his drinking.
(As a side note, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in ’95 and picked up a Jones-related curio from the gift shop- a cute little Jones teaspoon with his photo at the top, his name engraved on the inside bowl, a tiny guitar medallion in the middle, a Confederate Flag style background on the box and a “Made in Taiwan” sticker on the back. Turns out it was a souvenir coke spoon)
Unfortunately, by the time Jones was straightening out his life, the country hit parade has passed him by as the dawn of the megastar crossovers happened in the early 90’s. Though he was seen a living legend and some of the New Traditionalist pack (Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Clint Black) helped to boost his rep (especially on 1992’s all-star collaboration “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”), Jones’ recording career slowed down as his hits disappeared and labels dropped his contract, forcing him to go the indie DIY route of putting out his own albums. By the turn of the millennium, his album output had crawled to a stall, with years of hard living finally catching up to him. By then at least, he was happy to play the role of respected elder statesman, not to mention actually showing up and finishing concerts, though that also became a chore as his health kept declining towards the end. But even just before he died three years ago, he was still tentatively planning a series of farewell shows to cap his career and maybe make amends for his years of dodgy concerts.
In the end, Kienzle’s take on Jones’ life is such a page-turner that you’d wish he would provide more detail, which there was plenty of in Jones’ life. And again, an encyclopedia-sized book would do the job but until that time, this will more than suffice. Country fans, Jones fans and just plain music fans would find this a good read and it provides a great excuse to dust off his old albums or to start stacking up on his catalog. Just make sure it’s the ‘greatest hits’ collections though.